Open Source Secrets

By Darrell Dunn  |  Posted 08-01-2007 Print Email
Community-created, open source software helps businesses lower costs and speed development when done right.

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Open source is no longer a stranger in many IT shops as more companies become comfortable with the reliability of the ever evolving technology to develop crucial systems. Despite the prominence of licensed, proprietary software within the IT organization, open source proponents say their companies benefit from a community of contributors who help cultivate open source software that leads to rapid development of faster, less expensive and more flexible options.

Evidence of the growing popularity of open source software can be found in CIO Insight's May survey of IT leaders at midsize companies, in which more than half said their firms use or will soon deploy open source solutions for Web servers, browsers, database management, middleware, program development and security. In addition, a May IDC study shows worldwide revenue for open source software will balloon to $5.8 billion in 2011 from $1.8 billion 2006. That's a growth rate three times faster than the total software market, IDC says, though open source constitutes a mere 1 percent of worldwide software sales. And advocates of open source point out that most of its revenues come from annual subscriptions that cost 10 times less than equivalent licenses.

Open source may reduce software costs and vendor dependence, and improve flexibility and quality, but pitfalls exist. Commercialized open source software often comes from start-ups with limited staffs and abilities to support their products, and implementation frequently requires assistance from knowledgeable in-house staff or third parties. And, it's not truly free, particularly if you must rely on support services from the vendors, their partners or third parties.

What's more, nearly six of 10 IT leaders at midsize companies report compatibility problems when trying to get open source software to work with proprietary systems, according to CIO Insight research. Four in 10 say availability and cost or quality of vendor support, as well as training, present a significant problem. Also troublesome: users' reluctance to switch from familiar, proprietary systems. In many companies, in fact, using open source means a cultural change, in which sharing information with others—inside and outside the company—must be undertaken to exploit all the technology's benefits.

Those concerns didn't deter Weather Channel Interactive, the Weather Channel unit that oversees the company's online operations. The migration to open source for weather.com was a slow and cautious effort that "snowballed" over several years; today the business has moved nearly all its critical software to open source-based products, according to CTO Dan Agronow. The results of the software and hardware overhaul: 30 percent increased capacity and 50 percent decreased cost, Agronow says.

Weather.com launched in 1996 with the rise of the dot-com era, and built an IT infrastructure around Sun Microsystems servers and Sun's Solaris operating system. The tech collapse of 2000, and the terrorist attacks a year later, caused advertising revenues to all but evaporate. The company needed to reduce operational expenses, so it switched to commodity Dell and Hewlett-Packard servers using x86-based processors. Agronow began to explore open source software, and found he didn't have far to look for expertise. Some of the weather.com IT staff had ties to the open source community. Others bought into the idea of change.

First, staffers conducted a proof-of-concept test for running a basic image-surfing application—software that lets users move from image to image—on an x86-based server running Linux. The test showed open source could work within the weather.com infrastructure. The company was sold on open source, and over the following years implemented Apache Tomcat to replace its IBM WebSphere middleware and MySQL to replace its Oracle database. IT adopted Nagios for system management, Bugzilla for change requests and Eclipse for software development. The open source migration occurred as site traffic soared to more than 35 million unique users per month, one of the top 15 Web sites.

Agronow says weather.com didn't miss the vendor support that comes with commercial software. He disparages paid premium support from conventional vendors, saying customers often spend hours wading through a "chain of command" before securing needed developer-level assistance and getting fixes that won't be broadly available until the software's next release. If anything, he says, weather.com obtained superior support from the community of open source developers. "Now we put a question out to the open source support communities on the Internet, and get responses back quickly, providing usable information," Agronow says. "You're not limited to just the software vendor's staff, but can access a whole community that may be bigger than the staffs of the largest commercial software vendors. That kind of support has allowed us to gain control of our software and have much more flexibility."

Still, some companies fear such cooperation with outsiders could put their intellectual property at risk, perhaps jeopardizing patents and copyrights. "It is still murky enough that there is a cloud causing some potential users to remain cautious when adopting open source," says IDC analyst Matthew Lawton.

Forrester analyst Michael Goulde suggests that businesses create a "ring" around their employees working on open source projects to assure there is no cross-contamination from a company's internal, proprietary software development.

Ask your IT staff:

Is anyone here involved in an open source project or interested in participating in one?

Ask your legal department:

Does the company have any concerns about patents and copyrights associated with open source software and code?

Next page: Open Source Collaboration



 

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